From Madness to Stillness

June 19th, 2022 homily on Luke 8:26-39 by Pastor Galen

Entropy

Recently I started a new day job as the director of Admissions and Communications at a local seminary. When I began, my department had been without a Director of Admissions for several months and had been struggling to keep up communications with new and potential applicants. Prior to that, the department had scrambled to transfer all of their files and records online so that staff could access records remotely during the pandemic. But then a week or so after I started, our internet and email systems were taken down for a period of several weeks for security reasons. 

So needless to say, my first few months in my new position involved a lot of sorting through paper and digital files that were housed in a variety of places, first to find the information I needed, and hopefully going forward to streamline the system and bring everything together into one place.

Many of us probably spend a rather significant portion of our time trying to bring order to chaos. Whether it’s powering through all the dirty dishes that are piling up in the kitchen sink, folding piles of laundry, trying to catch up on emails, fixing things that are broken, managing projects, or figuring out better and more streamlined ways of doing things, our lives are in some ways a constant struggle against the disorder that seems to be the default of the world in which we live. 

The scientific concept that is most commonly associated with disorder, is ‘entropy.’ And we know, according to the second law of thermodynamics, that over time, “the net entropy (degree of disorder) of any isolated or closed system will always increase (or at least stay the same).” In other words, if a situation is chaotic, it’s never going to get better – in fact, it’s probably going to get worse – unless we work proactively to bring order to the chaos.

Legion

And so it was with the situation that Jesus encountered in the country of the Gerasenes. When Jesus arrived in Gerasa, he was met by a man who was possessed by unclean spirits. In fact, this man was called “legion” because of the many demons who were tormenting him. (A Roman legion in those days was an army unit consisting of 4,000 – 6,000 soldiers. That’s a lot of demons!)

This man’s afflictions were so intense that he brought chaos wherever he went. He was incapable of living a “normal” life – wearing clothes and living in a house. Instead he ran around naked and lived in a graveyard. The people of the village had tried to contain the chaos by binding the man with chains and shackles and setting guards to watch over him, but he would continually escape. No matter how hard they tried things only got worse.

Jesus Calms the Storm

This was not the first time Jesus had encountered a chaotic situation. In fact, in the verses immediately prior to this passage, Jesus and his disciples were caught in a severe wind storm while they were sailing across the Sea of Galilee. The boat was engulfed with water, and the disciples were terrified that they might drown. In that situation, Jesus had rebuked the wind and the raging waters, and they immediately subsided, and afterwards all was calm.

The situation with Legion was no doubt similarly terrifying to the people of Gerasa. I imagine the people or Gerasa lived in constant fear that Legion might one day attack them. But just as Jesus rebuked the storm and brought peace, so too Jesus spoke directly to the demons, commanding them to come out of the man. After the demons had left the man, the townspeople came and found the man “clothed and in his right mind.” Again, Jesus brought order to the chaos, peace in the midst of the storm. 

Order to Chaos

As I reflect on this scenario, I’m reminded of the account of creation in Genesis chapter 1, where the author tells us that “when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep.” (Gen. 1:1a). 

In the verses to follow, God systematically brought order to the chaos, first commanding that there be light, then separating the light from the darkness to create day and night, then separating out the waters on the earth from the waters in the sky, and then the water from the dry land, creating oceans and continents. God then proceeded to create the sun and moon and stars, the plants and trees, the birds of the air and fish of the sea, and then land animals and eventually people. And last but not least, God created the Sabbath, a day of rest – further bringing peace to what might otherwise feel like chaos. Jesus’s actions of calming the storm and freeing this man from demonic oppression, then, is in line with God’s work of creation –  bringing peace where there was once turmoil, order where there was once chaos.

Pigs?

We might wonder though, what about all of the pigs? Why did so many animals have to be harmed in the making of this story? I don’t know if we have any pig lovers here, but I know we have many people in our congregation who care deeply about animals and who may struggle with this part of the passage.

One possible explanation, which some have pointed out, is that Jesus did this in order to demonstrate to the man just how much God loved him – that his life was worth more than a whole herd of pigs. (Sort of a Gentile version of the lost sheep – where the shepherd left behind the 99 sheep to search for and find the one little lost lamb who was missing).

But if that were the point here, then I think Jesus would have done that as his first action, rather than as a response to the demons’ request. In addition, what does that explanation say about all of the townspeople whose pigs were drowned in the process? Pigs were valuable property in those days, and the whole town’s economy was most likely wrapped up in that herd of pigs. Did Jesus not care about all of them?

But rather, I wonder if Jesus allowed the demons to enter the herd of swine in response to the demon’s request as a tangible demonstration to the man and indeed the whole village of the awful power of evil left unchecked. The townspeople might have otherwise wrongly assumed that there had merely been something wrong with legion as a person – that his problems had merely been intrinsic or internal to him. But seeing that whole herd of pigs rush headfirst down the steep embankment and drown in the lake underscored the stark reality of the existence of evil forces in our world. Evil has a sort of entropy of its own – continuing to grow stronger if left unchecked, unless we are proactive about dealing with the roots of evil and injustice in our own lives and communities.

Ultimately, this is why Jesus came. Not to just help us deal with the problems that we face in this world, but to deal with the root of evil and injustice. It’s noticeable that Jesus didn’t invent a stronger rope or chain that could keep this guy locked up in order to prevent him from terrorizing the community. Rather he freed the man from oppression. 

Ultimately Jesus dealt a final blow to the powers of evil and injustice in our world through his death and resurrection on the cross. Through dying and rising again, Jesus was victorious over sin and death, demonstrating that goodness is stronger than evil, that God is more powerful than all of the forces of wickedness in this world, and that through Christ we too can be victorious. And with God’s help we too can bring order where there is chaos, freedom where there is oppression, and peace where there is turmoil.

Mass Incarceration

Today is Juneteenth, which is now a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. Juneteenth marks the anniversary of the announcement by Union Army general Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865, proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas.

But even as we celebrate the freedom that was granted to formerly enslaved people in our country, we are reminded that even today, not all people in our world or even in our society are truly free. Beth Luthye reminded us the other week of the presence and reality of human trafficking today – around the world, but even here in our city. And we are reminded that in so many ways and in so many forms there are still many people in our world today who are not granted equal freedom, or given equal access to resources. There are many ways in which chaos and confusion and injustice and oppression seem to go unchecked. 

We know that evil left unchecked will only continue to grow stronger, and so our society tries to enforce legislation. Like the people of Legion’s day, we lock up people we are afraid of, rather than trying to deal with the root causes of the affilictions they face.

We see this in our prison system, where 37% percent of people in our state and federal prisons and 44% of people in locally-run jails have been diagnosed with a mental illness, while only 34% of people in federal prisons reported receiving any mental health care while incarcerated. On top of that, incarceration itself has been shown to cause “post-traumatic stress, anxiety, impaired decision-making, and more.” One expert observed that “The prison environment is almost diabolically conceived to force the offender to experience the pangs of what many psychiatrists would describe as mental illness.” And yet we continue to lock people up as a primary strategy for dealing with the problems in our society. 

“The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and the highest per-capita incarceration rate. One out of every 5 people imprisoned across the world is incarcerated in the United States.” And yet it hasn’t made us safer, with many in our society living in a constant state of fear of violence – whether walking down the street, or in churches, or schools or movie theaters. 

We lament the presence of evil and injustice in our world, and we believe that evil left unchecked will only strengthen and grow worse. But as a Church, we believe that “A justice system that reflects God’s desires for the world is one that is healing and restorative.” This is why the Social Principles of the United Methodist church state that “In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal justice officials, and the community as a whole.” Our UMC Book of Resluations “calls on government and society to ‘stop criminalizing communities of color in the United States’ by dismantling unjust, racist policies and practices, including racial profiling, mass incarceration and communal disenfranchisement.”

Loosing the Chains of Injustice

And so what do we do with all of this? I know that the problems facing our society can feel overwhelming, and it can be difficult to know how we can truly bring peace in the midst of what often feels like a chaotic situation. But I believe that, in large ways and in small ways, we can and should look for opportunities to participate in God’s ongoing work to bring about peace and wholeness and restoration in our world. Whether it’s doing the dishes, or folding laundry, or organizing files at work, advocating for a justice system that is truly restorative, working to bring an end to human trafficking or to interrupt the school to prison pipeline, I believe that each and every one of these tasks can be holy, as we participate in bringing peace and wholeness to ourselves and those around us. 

When we think about the larger issues facing our society, the good news is that we do not have to do all of this on our own. That’s why we have the Church, and that’s why we have the power of the Holy Spirit living inside of us. 

So let us follow in the way of Jesus, and let us be people who participate in God’s work of bringing peace in the midst of chaos. Let us pray and work for an end to violence and injustice, and let us continue to pray and work until all are truly free.

Amen.

Does Not Wisdom Call?

June 12th, 2022 (Children’s Sunday) homily on Proverbs 8:1-4, John 16:12-15 by Pastor Galen

Wisdom vs. Knowledge

How many of you graduated this year, or moved up to another grade in school? Whether you graduated from Kindergarten, or are moving up to middle school, or high school, or graduated from high school, college, or grad school, that is a cause for celebration! You worked hard, and you are to be congratulated for your hard work and a job well done. 

But let me ask you a question. Now that you’ve completed this phase of your education, does that mean that you know everything there is to know? Have you learned every single thing that there is to know about the world?

Of course not! I just graduated from seminary – which is where people go to learn how to be pastors. But that doesn’t mean that I know every single thing that there is to know about being a pastor! And you probably didn’t learn every single thing there is to know about math, or science, or reading – no matter what grade level you completed. 

Rather, school is often about learning how to learn – learning where to go or who to ask in order to find the information you want or need to know. Education should also be about learning to love learning. That doesn’t mean you have to love every subject in school, but most likely as you’re studying your various subjects in school you may find yourself drawn to one subject more than the others – and that’s great! Because often your favorite subject becomes one that you love learning about, and so you spend more time doing that, and you get really good at it, and it might even become the thing you decide to do for a job or career!

The point is that school is more than just about learning all the right things. It’s about learning how to learn – learning where to go to find the information you need. And hopefully learning how to recognize when the information you find is not true or accurate. 

Does Not Wisdom Call

In Proverbs 8:1-4, the Bible says, “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” 

What is wisdom? Wisdom is more than knowing information. It’s knowing the right thing to do with the information you have in whatever circumstance you find yourself in. 

Let’s say, for example, that I were to give you $20. What could you do with $20?

  • You could buy something – perhaps download a new app or game. 
  • You could save it for when you really need it.
  • You could give it away to someone who needs it more than you. 
  • You could give it to the church. 
  • You could put it in the bank and save it for college. 

All of these answers are correct – in the sense that each of these answers are things that you could in fact do with $20. But what’s the right thing for you to do with that money? The answer is that it depends on the situation. And that’s where we need wisdom. 

Wisdom involves having knowledge. You can’t know the right thing to do if you don’t have all of the information. But information by itself will not necessarily help you know the right or wrong thing to do – that’s where wisdom comes in. 

How does one get wisdom?

So how can we gain wisdom?

  1. Well, wisdom often comes from experience. We try something and it doesn’t work, and so we try something else, and eventually we figure out what’s best. That’s why it’s often said that wisdom comes with age – because the older you get, the more of life you experience. And hopefully we learn from those experiences. 
  1. We can also learn from the wisdom of others who have had those experiences. You don’t necessarily have to experience everything yourself. You can learn from others who have tried and made mistakes, or had success doing something. For example, I’ve never tried jumping into the Baltimore inner harbor, but I know it’s a bad idea because I have a friend who did that, and she got hurt pretty badly, and then got an infection because the water in the harbor is so polluted. And so, ever since that happened to her, I have never been tempted to jump into the inner harbor. I don’t need to experience it to know that it’s a bad idea. I learned from the experience of my friend. 

Because wisdom often comes from experience, it’s important that we remember to look not just to our friends for ideas or suggestions when we are facing a decision, but also to people who are older than us and have a lot more life experience. You might think that your parents, grandparents, and teachers can’t relate to what you’re going through because they’re older than you, but most likely they experienced the same things you’re going through when they were your age. So it’s always a good idea to ask them for input and guidance as well!

  1. We can gain wisdom by praying, and listening to God, and reading God’s Word. In the Bible, there’s a story about a King by the name of Solomon, and he asked God for wisdom, and God granted his request, and he became known all throughout the world for his wisdom.

In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a woman – meaning that the author imagines what it would be like if wisdom were a person. And the author says, 

Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.”

This passage says that Wisdom is crying out to us – like a woman in a marketplace selling baskets, or bread. In other words, God wants to give us wisdom! If we pray for wisdom, we don’t have to wonder or worry about whether God will answer our request. Wisdom is calling out to us!

Similarly, in the New Testament, when Jesus was getting ready to leave the earth, he said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).

So God has promised that if we ask for wisdom, God will give us wisdom. 

A Time When I Needed Wisdom

I want to close by sharing about a time when I needed wisdom in my own life. When I was in about 4th or 5th grade, there was a girl in my class by the name of Melissa who was mean to a lot of the kids in the class, including me. She was rivals with another girl in the class named Ashley, and she would go around asking the other kids if they were on her side, or on Ashley’s side. And if anyone said they were on Ashley’s side, she would be mean to them until they agreed to be on her side. 

I really didn’t want to get involved, so I said I wasn’t on either side, but that didn’t make Melissa very happy, and she kept bothering me and pestering me to tell her that I was on her side. (Of course I knew that if I said I was on her side then she would go and immediately tell Ashley that I was on Melissa’s side, which would have hurt my friendship with Ashley).

I tried ignoring Melissa but that didn’t seem to work, because it always seemed like the teachers assigned us to sit next to each other in class. Plus, we lived just a few blocks away from each other, rode the same school bus to school, and my parents were friends with her dad.

I didn’t want to tell my parents or teachers – maybe I was afraid they thought I was being silly because I couldn’t handle this situation on my own. But eventually they figured it out, when one day I came home with pinches and scratch marks on my arm from where Melissa had scratched me as a way of trying to force me to be on her side.

After my parents found out what happened, they alerted the teacher, and eventually the situation got resolved. 

I learned a lot from that experience. I learned that situations don’t get resolved by simply ignoring them. I learned that it’s always best to tell a trusted adult when you feel unsafe or in danger. And I learned that the teachers and parents and those who are tasked with taking care of us can’t help us if they don’t know that something is wrong. 

Throughout that difficult experience, I felt God’s presence and direction. I felt God telling me not to try to get even with Melissa, or to hit or back, but rather to tell a trusted adult what was going on in my life. 

Wisdom is Calling

And that wasn’t the only time I needed guidance and direction from God, or to look to the wisdom of those older and wiser than me. All throughout my life, I’ve found it helpful to have someone older than me, with more life experience, who can help point me to God and help me decide the right thing to do. Teachers, mentors, professors, older friends and relatives, denominational leaders – we never outgrow the need to have other people in our lives who can help us determine the right thing to do, or the right decision to make. 

As we get older, we’ll also learn more how to discern God’s voice for ourselves and draw from our previous mistakes and victories. 

So let us seek wisdom. Indeed, let us hear that wisdom is calling out to us, that God wants to give us wisdom! Even as we continue to learn and grow and develop, let us remember that knowledge and information in and of themselves are not enough. We need wisdom. Let us pray, and ask that God would help us to grow in knowledge and in wisdom throughout our whole lives. 

Amen.

Thoughts and Prayers?

May 29th, 2022 homily on Acts 16:16-34 by Pastor Galen

Are Thoughts and Prayers Enough?

This week has been an incredibly difficult week for school students, parents and teachers, and anyone else in our society who cares deeply about children. The horrific mass shooting that took place at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas earlier this week is one of a long line of mass shootings. 214 mass shootings in the US this year alone, and 27 school shootings with injuries or deaths this year.

Our hearts broke as we heard the news of the children and teachers who were killed, as well as those who were injured. Our hearts grieve for those who lost loved one.

For me, the tragedy felt very close to home when the following day we received news that our own children’s school was put on lockdown due to a threat of violence that my kids’ school received the day after the shooting in Texas. Children had to hide in bathrooms and closets, some children even sending goodbye texts to their parents. Fortunately the threat was not carried out.

When it comes to tragedies like the one that took place at Robb Elementary, it’s difficult for us to know how to respond appropriately. The massacre in Texas has of course resurfaced debates in our society about gun control, with pro gun lobbyists proclaiming that guns are not the problem. The problem, they say, is with people, and they argue that we actually need more “good” people with guns if we’re going to stop by the “bad” guys. Those on the other side proclaim that there should be at least as many regulations for gun owners as we have for people who drive cars, and that if we really loved our children more than we love our guns then we would do everything within our power to try to prevent the type of violence that we saw earlier this week.

The tragedy has also resurfaced a debate – at least on my Facebook news thread – of the role of “thoughts and prayers” when it comes to a massacre such as this. Many of my Facebook friends stated emphatically that when it comes to school shootings, thoughts and prayers are simply not enough – that action must be taken, that we must change the laws in our society. While on the other hand, I saw someone else say, “sometimes ALL we can do is pray for a situation, or person!!” She went on to say, “You may not believe in the power of prayer and that’s ok. I believe in it!”

Now, as a person of faith, I do believe that prayer can change things, that God hear our prayers, and that something in the universe is affected when we pray. And yet I believe that the questions people are asking in our society are valid, and that we need to wrestle with the question “Are thoughts and prayers enough? Or is there more we should be doing?”

Paul and Silas in Jail

In Acts chapter 16, Paul and Silas were in prison. And somehow, in the midst of the terrible circumstances that they found themselves in, they began to sing and pray to the Lord.

Now in that particular situation, there was not much else that they could do besides sing and pray. Their hands were literally tied! They were in shackles and chains. They could not advocate for an end to mass incarceration, they could not change the unjust laws in their society that had led to their imprisonment. And so they did the one thing they could do, which was to cry out to God in prayer, and to sing hymns of praise to God.

Now, because the book of Psalms was essentially the Jewish hymnal of the day, most likely Paul and Silas were singing a Psalm. Perhaps they sang Psalm 27 like we read earlier. I can just imagine them, shackled, and chained in a dirty, smelly jail cell. They had just been attacked by a crowd of people, stripped of their clothes and beaten with rods. And now they were in an innermost cell, their feet fastened in the stocks, rats and mice and insects crawling all around them. People sick and diseased. On a human level there was literally nothing they could do to get out or to change the unjust system in which they found themselves.

 And so, they began to sing:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation;

    whom shall I fear?” – Psalm 27:1

Now, to many people, praying and singing when you’re in jail might sound about as futile as sending the family of victims thoughts and prayers. And in truth, often we do not see the results of our prayers. But in this particular instance, when Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns in the prison, all of a sudden, right in the midst of their praying and singing, there was a tremendous earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken, and the doors of the prison came open, and all of the prisoner’s chains were unfastened. 

The nature and timing of this earthquake was such that this could not have been a coincidence. It truly was an act of God, in direct answer to their prayers. Can you imagine? An earthquake that opened all the doors of the prison, and even broke the shackles off their feet, yet did not destroy the building itself!? It truly was an answer to their prayers.

And so, on the one hand, this story is a powerful testimony to the reality that prayer is in fact powerful. That God can and does sometimes answer our prayers in miraculous ways. The story of Paul and Silas singing and praying in the innermost part of the prison and being set free by the power of God is a reminder that even when we are in a situation where it seems that there is no way out, and there is nothing else we can do, when our hands are tied – literally or figuratively, we can still pray. Prayer is a powerful force that can bring about change in the world, because the God to whom we pray is powerful. 

When Prayer is Not Enough

But on the other hand, there are times when we have the opportunity to do more – when we can both pray, and take action. And in those situations, we don’t stop praying. We start and end in prayer, and all throughout we pray. But we don’t let it stop there. Because, as it has been said frequently over this past week in particular, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve.” 

In the book of Isaiah, chapter 58 we see a stark prophetic rebuke of people and nations who engage in spiritual and religious activities, but fail to work for justice. 

In this particularly passage the prophet calls out the hypocrisy of those who were fasting – which was a type of prayer that involved going without food for periods of time. And here’s what the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” – Isaiah 58:1-5

We cannot fast, or send up thoughts and prayers, or engage in other religious activities, and expect God to hear and respond to our prayers, if we are unwilling to repent and change the actions we are doing that contribute to the problems we are praying about!

As individuals, and as a church, and as a society, we must do our part to change, and change whatever we can, if we expect God to hear and answer our prayers.

And so we don’t stop praying, because prayer is powerful and can effect change as we see in the Paul and Silas. But in addition to prayer, we also vote, and march, and advocate, and condemn, and testify, and confess, and write, and question, and demand, and comfort, and defend, and call out, and resist, and build, and remember, and commit. As we have the opportunity, we change unjust laws and policies. and we change how money is spent and where it’s allocated. We elevate and make space for those who have not been given the opportunity to let their voices be heard. And so yes we pray, but we also work, and act, and then we pray some more. Because prayer is a powerful force for change, but God will not hear our prayers if we refuse to do our part when given the opportunity.

The good news, according to the prophet Isaiah, is that when engage in the types of religious activities that include loosening the chains of injustice, and freeing those who are oppressed, then the prophet Isaiah tells us that “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”

Interestingly enough, the whole reason that Paul and Silas were imprisoned in the first place, and the reason they were attacked by the mob and beaten with rods and publicly humiliated, is that they had delivered a slave girl from demonic oppression who was held in captivity by slave owners who were using her abilities for their own financial gain. So Paul and Silas had literally loosened the chains of injustice, and freed those who were oppressed. No wonder God heard and responded to their prayers!

So let us pray! Let us pray continuously, and may we never stop praying. But let us also act as we have the opportunity. May our prayers not be an excuse to not do our part. Yes, there are times when we are trapped and there is no way out, and prayer may be the only thing we can do in a particular situation. And in those situations we can take comfort in the fact that God hears the cries of the oppressed! But as we have the opportunity, may we act in accordance with the prayers that we pray. If and when we do that, then God will act, and perhaps even work in miraculous ways to bring freedom from oppression, and give us the peace that we so long to experience.

Amen.

We Are Witnesses

5.22.22 Homily on 1 Peter 3:15-16 by Rev. Trenton Prieshoff

We are Witnesses – this phrase says so much about both our identity and purpose. Who we are and what we are meant for are so beautifully and powerfully wrapped up in our understanding of this one word.

I was introduced as Reverend Prieshoff but I understand how much of a mouthful that is. Pastor Trent is fine. But I am also known bu another name. I teach 8th grade math here in the public schools and my students know me as Mr. Prie (pree).

We are witnesses… that is our calling: our identity and purpose are wrapped up here… it’s who we’re meant to be… what we’re meant to do… We are witnesses.

But I think there’s a lot of discomfort and confusion with that being our identity and purpose…

Some may have images of bible thumping with fire-and-brimstone and the pain that leaves behind

Some may think of it as something for people with who have had lots of training

Some have memories of being turned away or shut out because someone felt weird when you spoke up.

The way that Peter describes our calling as witnesses is important. He writes in 1 Peter, 3:15 “Do not be afraid. Instead, in your heart, honor Christ as the Lord and always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

To Peter, To be witnesses isn’t about a quota, a job we need to get done, or a communication style we need to perfect… it’s a stance.

The way a runner starts off in their stance, they are ready for the moment… The way a dancer holds a form, they are ready to respond to the music and to their partner… the way soldiers will gather in formations to assess their situation and plan the next step.

The assumption is… if you have experienced Christ then you will live like you have hope.

And if you live like you’ve got hope… then people are gonna ask you some questions.

And as a witness… you need to be able to respond to their questions.

We are in the world but not of the world… those words in that order don’t come from the bible but Jesus communicates that truth in John 17:14-16 when he prays to the Father because of the challenges that he knows his followers like you and me are going to face

We are in the world… but we are not of the world.

As a teenager, that meant I shouldn’t drink, smoke, and cuss because I have to go to school in the world but I shouldn’t do what other kids do to fit in. But I think that means something deeper… It’s about the stance we have in the world.

As a teacher… I don’t evangelize in class. But I witness.

After getting herself into trouble one day, a student came back to my classroom to apologize and ask, “am I still in trouble?”

And I could tell her, “look, kid… I’m not mad at you. You’re a bright student and you could have a lot of opportunities opening up for you in the future. But I have also witnessed this anger that is bottled up in you and if you don’t find a way to process and get rid of it instead of just covering it up… I am really worried about how you are going to lose opportunities.”

She said, “I don’t know how to do that.”

“Well,” I told her, “You know that I am also a pastor. I don’t know how to answer that as a math teacher. Is it okay with you if I talk with you like a pastor instead of a math teacher?”

Being a witness … being prepared to give a reason for the hope you have… is something we all do in all of our vocations in every kind of community.

There is an important question I would like to ask you… You don’t need to answer right away, but you should think about it. It should shape the conversations you have after church when you go to brunch and watch baseball:

What kind of stance do you have? What does your stance communicate about what is real? About what is true?

But that’s not what I came to talk with you about today. I didn’t come to talk with you about your stance or how to be a witness in three easy steps.

Peter says “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

This command is built on an assumption:

The assumption is that you have hope.

And sometimes, it’s hard to have hope… Sometimes, being in the world… that’s too much to assume.

In our scripture reading today Luke is telling us that they set sail on a journey that takes them from Troas (Northwest Turkey) to Samothrace (an island in between Turkey and Greece) to Neapolis to Philippi. But we are missing some context.

Go a little further back in verse 6 and we are told that the team tried to go to Asia (another district in NW Turkey) and God told them “no.” They traveled all that way… only to be told “no” when they finally got there. They went to Mysia… “no.” They went to Bithynia… “no.” And because we read this in just a few sentences I think it’s easy to read over it too quickly.

Paul tells us that he funded his ministry by making tents. These were weeks, maybe months of stopping to make tents, set up in the market, save up money, buy provisions and get ready to travel again… Stop to make tents, set up a market, and so on.

I’ve been in a season like that: a season of wandering… a season of searching, a season of wondering.

Seasons when you feel like “What am I even doing?”

Am I making any progress?

What difference am I even making?

Did I hear God correctly?

I told you that as a teacher, I am a witness. A witness has experienced things… and they tell what they have experienced: what they saw, what they heard, what they felt.

And every day I am a witness: One way or another.

I like to think my life is a witness of the power and love in Jesus.

But in the classroom, I am in the world and I witness the grotesque language they use to bully and belittle one another.

I witness the gross inequality of resources for students in one zip code over another zip code.

I witness the coldness, obstinance, and defiance of students in crisis.

I witness the ways students belittle my own dignity… the way they twist my words, slander my integrity, and misrepresent my character.

I witness children resorting to violence, alcohol, and drugs.

I witness the parent express disgust toward their child and I witness the look on that child’s face when they hear those words.

And some days I like to hope my life is a witness of the power and love in Jesus Christ, and some days my life is a witness of the abundance and potential for them… And some days all the things I witness are a lot to take, line is crossed and my stance looks defensive. There are days when my stance is just putting my palm to my face. There are days when my stance is to break down and just weep.

“In the world but not of the world” is more than a catch phrase. It is the reality. We are in the world. And in the world, we witness corruption, negligence, and indifference in the classrooms and workplaces around us. We witness pettiness and one-upmanship. We witness the fresh atrocities in Ukraine. We witness hate crimes in Buffalo, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

We witness the anger and the grief made fresh every morning. 

We witness the fear and the suspicion that are all that’s left when our optimism dries up.

…and hope? It can be hard to come by.

We are in the world, but not of the world. We experience all the broken promises, grotesque violence, and terrible inequalities of the world…

AND

Because we are in Christ… we experience the unfailing love of God.

So what kind of hope is Peter talking about?

  1. He is talking about a hope that sees.

People of God, if you are writing anything down, please write this down.

We are witnesses.

We see what is happening and as good and faithful witnesses, it is right to call out what we see.

It’s common to get the impression that… in order to win people over to Christ… we have to be optimistic and happy. When we see pain and heartache in people around us, we have to turn to a hollow positivity, saying things like “well, God will work all things together for the good…” or “there’s gonna be a testimony that comes from this.”

Maybe a testimony will come… and God will work all things together for the good of those who love him. But that does not mean we shouldn’t call a spade a spade; a crime a crime; a sin a sin.

Our calling to be a witness does not ask you to turn a blind eye to the heartaches and grief in the lives and communities around us. Our hope is not blind optimism. Our hope sees. And our hope testifies.

2. He is talking about a hope that remembers.

I think it’s tempting to think that hope is something you can see coming.

When do you feel hopeless? When you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel… when you can’t see where you’re going. When you’re anxious about the future.

When do you say that you are feeling hopeful… when there aren’t any foreseeable conflicts or roadblocks ahead.

But that is a hope that is based only on your circumstances. Everyone has that kind of hope.

Hope isn’t based on what you are feeling right now.

Hope isn’t based on the expectation of progress ahead.

It is based on what is real. What is more real even than the pain and grief we witness. What is real is that God is a God who sees us. God is a God who knows our hurts and failures and loves us. Our God is not a God who stands by wishing the violence of our world away. Our God is a God who puts his own skin in the game.

I am reminded of one of my favorite verses from Lamentations 3. The prophet, Jeremiah speaks about the pain and loss and heartache he has experienced and even blames it on God. He says, “I remember my affliction and wandering; the bitterness and the gall. I remember them well and my soul is distraught within me … yet … this comes back to mind and therefore, I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not overcome. His compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. I will say to my soul, “the lord is my portion. I will wait for him.”

Our hope is not based in what we feel or what we can see… that would be “of the world” but we are not “of the world.”

3. And last, our hope is a hope that praises.

I read to you earlier from 1 Peter chapter 3 when Peter writes about giving an answer for the hope we express.

I want to read to you now from his introduction when he describes that hope:

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Praise does not do a disservice to the reality of grief. In fact, our hope is born out of our grief.

We are in the world… but not of the world.

And that allows us to be witnesses of all that we see.

It allows us to be advocates of all that is right.

It gives us the footing to be able to point to the promises of God and His faithfulness.

Get Up!

May 8th, 2022 homily on Acts 9:36-43 by Pastor Galen Zook

Today is Mother’s Day, a day when we celebrate motherly love. And today we want to especially express our gratitude for all of the mothers and grandmothers and women of faith in our midst who love us and demonstrate God’s love to us.

In addition to our biological mothers, I’m sure all of us have people in our lives who loved us in motherly ways. Perhaps it was a grandmother, or aunt, or teacher, a mentor, or a friend. 

Many times the way we experienced love from our mothers and grandmothers and the women of faith in our lives was not just through words, but through actions and deeds. They cared for us, nurtured us, supported us, encouraged us, and served us in practical ways – day in and day out. In fact, so often it’s those everyday acts of love that we so often take for granted, and yet impact us the most.

Of course, on a day such as today, we also think of those whose mothers and grandmothers are no longer with us. The pain of loss and separation is often felt that much more strongly on a day such as today when we celebrate motherly love, and so we are especially thinking of all of you who are missing your mothers and grandmothers on this day as well. 

Tabitha/Dorcas

I imagine that many of the people of Joppa thought of Tabitha, or Dorcas, as a motherly figure. Here in Acts 9 we see that she was “devoted to good words and acts of charity” (Acts. 9:36). In particular, one of the ways she cared for others was by making clothing for widows in the town – many of whom probably could not have afforded the cloth to make their own clothes, or who were so busy trying to put food on the table for their families that they didn’t have time to make clothes for themselves or their children. 

And that’s where Tabitha had stepped in, sewing clothes for the widows of Joppa and their family. Making sure the children had nice tunics to wear for school, and warm cloaks to wear in the winter.

I imagine that the Tabitha didn’t just mass produce the clothing for the widows and their children. I picture her sitting there at her loom, weaving each and every article of clothing with unique patterns and fabrics. She probably took the time to get to know each of the children of the village – not only their names and ages, but their favorite subjects in school, the games they liked to play in the town square. Their favorite colors. She handcrafted each article of clothing with love, smiling to herself as she pictured the children running around the marketplace wearing the various articles of clothing she was making for them. 

Whether or not Tabitha had ever been a mother herself, she certainly was like a mom to all of the younger widows and a grandmother to all of the children in the village. 

And that’s why everyone took it so hard when she suddenly became ill and passed away. The widows were in a state of shock. How could they go on without Tabitha in their lives? It wasn’t just the clothes that she made for them and the other acts of charity that she carried out. It was her spirit, her love, her personality that they would miss the most. 

And so they sent word for the Apostle Peter, one of the twelve Apostles who carried on Christ’s mission now that Jesus had risen and ascended in heaven. They called Peter to come and see what he could do to help them. The Apostle Peter speaks the same words Jesus spoke when he encountered the widow’s son of Nain who had passed away in Luke 7, and to Jairus’ daughter in Luke 8 – “Get up.” And sure enough, Tabitha, although she had been dead, got up! She was raised back to life through the power of Jesus Christ. And her life once more became a living testimony to the power and wonder of God.

The Witness of Deeds

There are many of us here today who may wish we could bring our mothers, or grandmothers, or others who have impacted our lives back to life. But while we may not be able to raise the dead as Jesus and Peter did, the witness and testimony of these godly women of faith lives on in the people they loved and cared for, and in the acts of love they carried out for others. Each of us are in many ways an extension of the people who have loved us and poured into us. And as we follow their example and walk in the way of love and compassion, we keep their legacy alive.

The reality is, though, that often acts of love and charity go overlooked in our world and society and even in the Church. People who serve those in need day in and day out usually don’t get buildings named after them. People who care for children, or tend to those who are sick, or visit those who are in prison, or who serve at Food Pantries, usually don’t get their names in lights. Their good deeds so often go unrecognized. They may spend their whole lives serving others and rarely receive gratitude.

And yet often it’s those acts of love and charity that lead many people to Christ. It did so in the case of the widow’s in Tabitha’s day, and it often does so today in the case of so many people who are drawn to Christ through humble acts of love and service and prayer. 

So often we hear stories of people who wandered away from the faith or stopped attending church, as in the case of my colleague Donna, who I shared about last week. And often they will say that it was the prayers and love and compassion and prayers of their mother or grandmother or another woman of faith that drew them back.

Peggy

A couple of weeks ago, I was called to the bedside of our dear sister in Christ, Margaret “Peggy” Corbin, who passed away last week. Like Tabitha in the Bible, Peggy was known for her good works and charitable deeds. Peggy was married to her husband Michael for 55 years. She was the mother of three sons, the grandmother of four grandchildren, and she was survived by many nieces, nephews, extended relatives and dear friends.

The last couple of years were extremely difficult for Peggy and her family as Peggy’s onset of Alzheimer’s coincided with the COVID pandemic. It was difficult for her to understand why she couldn’t come out to church or visit with friends and family. The past year was especially difficult for Peggy and her family as her alzheimers grew increasingly worse, and she had a number of other health-related issues as well. 

As I shared with her friends and family at her memorial service this past week, although Peggy will be dearly missed, we can take comfort in the fact that she is now at peace and in the presence of Jesus, that her body and mind are fully restored, and that one day we will be reunited with her and all of our friends and loved ones who have gone on before us.

But something that struck me as I talked with Peggy’s family over these past few weeks is that each and everyone one of her family members told me that Peggy was always thinking of others, always putting their needs before her own. In many ways, her family were her life. And she didn’t serve others to get attention or to receive gratitude. Her acts of love and service were always done in love. Peggy’s friends and family shared how her humility and acts of love exemplified the love of Jesus to them and drew them closer to Christ.

In a time in our society in which so many people care only about themselves, the love that Peggy had for her family and even those outside of her immediate family will stand as a living and enduring testimony to the love of Jesus Christ. Even though Peggy has gone on to be with Jesus, her witness and testimony will live on in and through her family and our church.

The Lord is Our Shepherd

The way that Peggy and Tabitha loved and cared for others throughout their lives reminds us of the image of the Lord as our Shepherd, as we see in Psalm 23. 

The Psalmist says that the Lord is like a shepherd who makes us lie down in green pastures, and leads us beside still waters. And the psalmist says that even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, still the Lord is right there beside us, leading us and guiding us. His rod and his staff comfort us. 

Although in this image the shepherd no doubt uses words to speak to the sheep, it’s interesting to note that it is the physical actions of leading the sheep to water and making the sheep to lie down in green pastures that gives tangible expression to the shepherd’s care and concern for the sheep. 

Even if and when it is sometimes difficult for us to recognize our Shepherd’s voice, we can know that  Jesus is right there beside us, leading us, guiding us, looking out for us. And even when we go through the valley of the shadow of death, we can rest in the assurance that Jesus will be there to lead us safely to the other side. 

Many of us have probably heard the quote that is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” And while words are often necessary, the point stands that we can preach the Gospel not only through the words we speak, but also, and maybe even more importantly, through our actions. In fact, often we are not given the opportunity to speak – either because our friends or neighbors or coworkers or family members don’t want to hear what we have to say about Jesus or because they have closed themself off to the message of the Gospel. But no matter what, we can always share the love of Christ through our actions – and through the love and care and concern that we demonstrate to others.

People may forget or misinterpret or misremember the things we say, but they will more often remember the things we do. This is one reason why acts of love and compassion can be such powerful forms of witness. And this is why Tabitha’s form of Gospel proclamation as seen here in Acts was an especially powerful form of witness.

A Living Testimony

So let us not overlook or downplay the power of acts of love and charity when it comes to being a witness for Jesus Christ. 

Let us remember those who have witnessed to us through their acts of care and compassion. And let us keep their memory alive, not only through sharing the memories we have of them, but also through picking up their mantle, and carrying on those acts of love and compassion for others. 

As we do this – as we love others in the same way those who have gone before us have loved and cared for us – their witness and testimony – and ours as well – will live on. 

Amen.